Interview of Archimandrite Ephraim, head (”Righteous” - ”Dikaios”) of the Skete of Saint Andrew, Karyes, Mount Athos.
In Finland in 2006.
What is the role of the spiritual father in the daily lives of present day Orthodox people?
He must humbly and responsibly help them in their spiritual rebirth, which happens as they are freed from demonic thoughts. At the same time he helps them to preserve sincere repentance and prayer of Jesus. His burning desire is to bring his spiritual children as saved to the Kingdom of God, so that the words of prophet Isaiah might come true: "Behold, I and the children whom the Lord hath given me" (Isaiah 8:18).
Does the monastic life still attract people?
Yes, indeed. Like a strong magnet draws to itself pieces of iron, so the grace of the Holy Spirit draws some people to monastic angelic life. There exists no school, where one could learn monastic life like there exists theological faculties and seminaries for learning theology. However, Lord Himself calls these people. On another hand, a person, who has received this calling from Heaven, has in himself a strong desire freely and without coercion, with full consciousness, to become a monk. There is neither proselytism nor propaganda in the monastic life.
What can monasteries and monastics give to the Finnish Orthodox who live in the world and far away from Athos?
Orthodox monasticism has produced many saints, great saints to our Church. Think long and hard and you will see that most saints of the Orthodox Church – patriarchs, bishops, priests, diacons, monks and nuns – followed the monastic way of life, because the saints of the Church belong mostly to two categories: monks and martyrs.
Saints are God's people, who were purified and englighened. They prayed with sincerity for all the peoples of the world. They knew Jesus in the Holy Spirit and they were saved.
From the Holy Mountain many great missionary workers came to the world, before and also in later times. They were, for example, Saint Anthony of Kiev, Saint Arseny of Konevits and Saint Cosmas of Aetolia.
The monastic life of the Holy Mountain offers to the Finnish believers all of its rich tradition and experience simply and without forgery. These include for example the prayer of the mind, a way to heal the mind and thoughts, double-fold, that is, psycho-somatic fasting and psycho-somatic purity, which is in danger of being lost in these end times. We do not teach that everyone should become a monk to be saved, but that everyone should live the life taught by Christ and his disciples. The Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ, Himself gave us this commandment when He said: "Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us." (John 17:20-21). He said [...] that all believers should become one in the Holy Spirit. We should keep this union all our lives through repentance, humility, prayer of the mind and Mysteries of the Church and by sincerely loving the Trinitarian God. At the same time the fathers of the Holy Mountain recommend that we all study the writings of the Church fathers and love encyclopedic education and culture.
Therefore it is necessary for monks and laymen to keep contact both inside the Holy Mountain and in the world. Personal meetings, discussions, sermons and divine Liturgy enhance the devotion of laymen towards our holy Church, expel evil thoughts against monks - thoughts of how monks are misanthropes and separate themselves from the world and are lazy, egoistic and – terrible to even say – even pretenders and immoral!!
How can we preserve the simplicity of the mind in this modern day society?
With prayer of the mind, by not talking nonsense about our neighbour and loving and respecting them with sincere heart.
How can one achieve the simplicity of the mind?
So that the mind, which is split up by many passions and thoughts, could become simple, it must start to avoid first of all harmful thoughts, secondly too many thoughts and thirdly even good thoughts. Those that systematically practise the prayer of the heart understand that even these third ones should be pruned away.
The Jesus prayer unites slowly the many thoughts of the mind, because the prayer itself contains grace. The name of God, which me remember in our minds, shatters and expels bad thoughts. It illumines, heals, unites, fills with grace, sanctifies and divinizes the mind. This is the experience of the great saints of our Church and those who practise the Jesus prayer. This is what we have been taught and this is what we teach. This knowledge based on experience we put forward to every person so that they can freely consider it, so that all that have a mind can understand the truth.
How can we live a more spiritual life?
Christ said in his Holy Gospel: ”Ask - - ; seek - -; knock - - ” (Matthew 7:7). We must, therefore, show patience and endurance, good will and our whole-hearted love towards Christ so that He might give us more faith. ”Lord, enlighten the darkness of my soul and mind with the help of Your Holy Spirit and guide me to do Your will and not my own. Keep me in Your holy fear that I might live as Orthodox, following Your Holy commandments with the prayers of Your holy Mother and all Your saints.”
How should we pray?
To learn how to pray we must: firstly, get well acquinted with the psalms of the Prophet-King David, secondly to the prayers of the services of the Church and thridly, to the Jesus Prayer. In addition we can use as a help the prayers written by the great saints of the Church. We cannot, naturally, rule away prayer with our own words, even though such a prayer has its own risks.
The psalms of David, which there are 150, contain in a cristalized form the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is why the Church has kept them for 2000 years in Her prayers and services. As we well know, there is not a single service of the Church, which would not include psalms. When psalms are being read or sung, the grace of the Holy Spirit is poured to the listeners. It extinguishes the thirst of the soul but at the same time it makes one endlessly thirsty because man can never have enough of the mercy of God. The mind is also illumined endlessly. Divine thoughts occupy it and help it to defeat the devil as Christ defeated it in the Mountain of temptations. That Christ Himself used there the words of the Holy Scripture from Deuteronomium and the psalms of David when saying: ”It is written, - - - ” (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10) teaches us also to use these when we are fighting with our enemy to totally conquer it.
A believer must also know well the services of the Church. He must have the books for services in his home and he must study them. He must, for example, study the Compline, Akathist, Midnight Office, Hours and Vespers. When one knows how the services proceed, one can follow them in tranquility and read from heart Minea, Triodion, Pentecostarion and patricipate in one's mind the singing or for example hum or sing together with the choir. The holy services are intellectual services, because they are read and sung so that everyone can hear them. Even the divine Liturgy is intellectual service.
Prayer of the mind happens in the mind (nous) and heart – it is spiritual, inner divine service that does not remind at all the intellectual service, because it takes place quietly in the altar of the soul by the grace of the Holy Spirit. The service which happens in the mind is quite much more valuable than all the intellectual services. This we know from the experience of our holy God-bearing fathers for most of the appearances of Christ, Theotokos and saints have happened exactly during the service of the mind and very rarely during the divine Liturgy. The progress which we receive from the prayer of the mind also helps us to be more conscious and vigilant and God-fearing in all the intellectual services.
The prayers compiled in the books are an endless richness, which has been preserved to our sinful age. Even though these prayers seem outwardly to be spontaneous prayers by some people they contain lot of grace of the Holy Spirit because they come from a holy mouth, body and soul – from people in whom God was totally pleased, so that they became temples of the Holy Spirit and vessels of God's grace. Therefore it is very useful to use often these prayers also, so that our understanding would be filled with their theological ideas that nourish our souls.
Always, throughout the ages, there have been also spontaneous prayers with own words and they will never stop. A prayer is everyone's free expression to God, coming from within, and it cannot be put into stereotypical forms. However, in a freely formed prayer there is involved the danger of looking for words, e.g. man's reason searches the words he wants to use during prayer. When I am thinking, what to say in prayer, I am no longer praying. Therefore the ways of prayer mentioned earlier help us when we praying so that we won't jabber and babble. Christ, the Knower of the hearts, knows our needs before we ask them and He has known them even before the world was created. Amen.
Ortodoksiviesti 6/2006. Questions by Pauliina Happo. Published with permission.